#18 Rainy Day Wave Riding in Cambodia

It’s wet outside where I am wandering today, and the weather has me reminiscing about rainy days in Cambodia. Since it helps to laugh when the sky is grey, here’s an embarrassing tale about mixing monsoons and motorbikes.

Living in Phnom Penh, I drove a mildly beat up blue Honda “Wave” motorbike. When I first got my wheels I didn’t have much moto experience, but with fear of death as a great motivator I mastered quite a few skills quickly.

In just a few days I’d learned normal driving, riding in the dark, riding in rush hour, riding on the wrong side of the road, riding through roundabouts, riding with passengers and parking in a crowded line of other motos without knocking them all down like dominos. After a week the only thing I hadn’t yet attempted was riding in the rain. The rainy season was coming, but I wasn’t worried. I figured everyone else survives driving in the rain, I could too.

I was wrong.

The primary thing to know about riding a moto though a flood is that you must not stop once you start driving or your bike will stall. You also learn some other important things very quickly, like:  

–       you must learn which streets will flood

–       you shouldn’t wear shoes that fall off in the rain

–       you have to know where you’re going because you can’t turn around

–       you must know where the potholes are because you can’t see them

–       sometimes it is just better to stay home.

Here’s how I learned all of these lessons:

One afternoon in Phnom Penh the sky fell out just as I was leaving to go to a dinner at a friend’s house across town. I looked outside at the flooded street and thought, maybe I should skip. Then I looked at myself and said- to hell with it, you’re strong and brave and unstoppable, jump on your moto and go; the worst you can do is get wet.  I put on my flip flops and rain jacket and set out.

I got one block before I hit an intersection flooded too deep to cross. I turned around, reconfigured the route and headed a different way on streets with higher ground. Within minutes I was soaked, but feeling  exhilarated from braving the monsoon on a moto.

The wetter I got, the more problems I began having. My shoes were too wet to shift gears and my feet kept slipping off the pedals. But I drove on.

As I got closer to the neighborhood of my destination the waters started rising. Several times I drove down a street only to drive straight into a knee deep intersection requiring me to about face. After five or six denied crossings I was drenched and beginning to feel discouraged. I’d attempted every entrance to my friend’s street with no success. The last place I stopped was so deep that someone had tied a rope across the road to stop people from even attempting. I stopped my moto and stood there looking as I contemplated my next move. Someone watching me, thinking I might attempt to drive into the deep end came over to me and assured me with “No. No. No. No. Cannot go there”.

In my own drenched determination I decided to circumnavigate the neighborhood and enter her street from the opposite side. It it was still pouring and I was in very unknown and unmarked territory. While I claim to have a pretty savvy sense of direction, I was pretty much lost. I knew I needed to turn left into her street, but I had no way to know which street that was unless I drove down each one.

Every street was flooded. Flooding my engine was basically inevitable, and that’s exactly what I wound up doing. Knee deep in murky, smelly street water, I stood in the road on my dead moto contemplating my next move.

The electric starter was fried and I couldn’t see to kick start my bike because the pedals were underwater. A few people drove by, but no one could help because if they stopped, they would also stall.

I couldn’t get the bike into gear and kept losing my shoe into the grey water in the process. I got off the bike so I could use my stronger right leg to kick it into gear. It worked. Only problem was that my bike took off, and I wasn’t on it.

I lept forward to catch my run away moto with cat like reflexes. Although I was successful, I accidentally caught it with my right hand on the accelerator and just as I thought I might have control, it lept away from me and threw me backwards. Completely backwards onto my back in the flooded street.

I stood up, utterly drenched in stinky street water.  With tears in my eyes I picked up the Wave and attempted to push her to some dryer ground. The damages sustained were minor. My motorbike had a broken handbrake and my ego took a serious bruising.

And my lesson: sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself so you don’t add tears to the already flooded streets.

Just for the record, after three years in Cambodia I became a much accomplished monsoon moto driver. On the odd occasion when I did stall out in a flood I’d cue old school Milli Vanilla on my life soundtrack and hum “Blame it on the rain.”

#17 Missing in Malaga: How to Lose a Landrover

Remember when I lost my rental car in Barcelona? Well, there must be something about the air in Spain that makes me lose my sense of direction.

I find myself in whirlwinds a lot (probably because I create them). In the midst of a whirlwind, the first thing that blows away is typically my memory. After the memory goes I begin to lose everything else. Usually I lose keys and money and IDs, but one time on a special weekend in Spain, my friend and I lost a Land Rover. This is how it happened:

One summer while I was living in the UK, I popped down to Spain’s Costa Del Sol for a whirlwind weekend to help my favorite Mexican plan a Mediterranean wedding and to meet up with another friend who happened to be working temporarily in the land of tapas and bullfights.

My friends were staying in a villa perched on top of a very steep hill, and early one morning during my visit, my friend Chris and I decided that we should go for a training run (running is important if you are consuming large quantities of tapas and sangria late at night like Spaniards do). Because we knew that we wouldn’t want to summit Spain’s steepest hill to get home at the end of our run, we borrowed a Land Rover and headed to the beach below.

The streets were quiet and the sea was still when we pulled the giant white Land Rover into an empty car park, laced up our running shoes, hid the keys and took off for a few miles along the deserted beach. It was a beautiful and peaceful morning run. We clocked a few kilometers and turned to head back, only to find that while we’d been on the run, the city had woken up. The problem was that on our return run everything looked very alive and different. Not to fear, we calculated how long we’d been running and figured that 20 more minutes at a consistent pace would lead us to our starting point.

As the sun began to creep higher in the sky, we arrived at the parking lot where we’d left our vehicle. The only problem was that our Land Rover was no where to be found. Unsure if we had passed it and didn’t see it, or not sure if we’d gone far enough, we began to run back and forth along the beach, extending our little jog into a much longer and more stressful workout.

Despite what opinions you may have from how many times I’ve been lost in my 100 stories so far, I’m actually pretty good with directions and I usually try to make a mental note of where I park.

When nothing added up and we still couldn’t find it, we thought about the fact that we’d hid the keys on the front tire. Another lapse in common sense. Nearly convinced it was stolen, or towed, we went on one last mission up the beach a little further than we’d looked already. Turns out our calculations of distance were worse than our lack of common sense. Just a few steps beyond we eventually found it hiding right in the parking lot where we left it.

And so, the moral of the story is this: Nothing is too big to be lost.

If you do find yourself someday in a situation where you’ve lost something really giant, take a moment to consider that you are probably the thing that is lost.

And also, if you borrow someone’s Land Rover you should probably keep the keys with you.

Ps. Please forget this story if I ever ask to borrow your car.

Ships, Ships, Ships & Weathering the Storm

Long ago I spent five years living on a ship. It was a pretty amazing ship, full of fabulous people all committed to helping people as it sailed around Africa.

I was reminiscing about life on this ship this week as 60 Minutes presented a segment on Mercy Ships, the organization I worked with long ago. (You should check it out here)

Ironically, I was also equally reminded about the crazier parts of ship living as I watched the news just a few days earlier documenting the recent Carnival Triumph disaster and the anniversary of the sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy last year.

In reality, long-term living on a ship is a mash-up of both the amazing and the awful.  While I’m pretty sure I never actually feared sinking, we definitely had our moments. Like, one time…

Sailing through the North Sea between Germany and the Netherlands, we ran into some weather that was a little uncooperative (ie. gale force winds and high seas). Waves were crashing over the bow, and the corkscrew motion of the ship pitching and rolling had so many people sea sick that the common rooms in the stable portions of the ship looked like a refugee camp (or perhaps the deck of the Carnival Triumph).

Even though I’m afraid of bridges, I wasn’t afraid of rough seas. While the gale force winds blew up above, I slept like a baby below deck, rocked to sleep by the waves.

In the middle of the night there was a loud banging on our door followed by the voice of our muster leader. This is the person who is in charge of making sure you’re at the right lifeboat in case something incredibly bad happens. This is not a voice you want to be waking you during a rough sail.

Thankfully, the news wasn’t alarming. The ship wasn’t going down and we didn’t need our lifejackets. The message, however, wasn’t exactly what anyone wants to hear in the middle of the night (or ever).

(Warning: This part of the story is gross, don’t read it while you’re eating dinner)

We’d been woken up because our hall was flooding with water. This was a nasty “grey” water coming out of toilets and drains. The storm was too bad and was causing the ship’s drainage to malfunction. (yuck)

We had only one choice- scoop up the water in buckets as quickly as we could and carry the buckets above deck to dump them overboard. 

When I agreed to live and work on a hospital ship in Africa for years, my vision was saving the world, not ankle deep midnight sewage scooping. This wasn’t what I had signed up for.

At some point when the flooding was under control, I went on search for junk towels we could use to assist with clean up. My quest led me to the “boutique”, a room on the ship where outgoing crew members would leave their extra belongings for others to claim. I not only found towels, I also happened to find my sense of humor and a fabulous treasure- a fancy blue velvet dress.

In a moment, I slipped the dress over my pajamas, grabbed the towels and went back to join the clean up process. I joked that if we were going down with the ship, I wanted to be dressed and singing like I was on the Titanic.

The next day the sea calmed, we soaked our world in bleach, disinfected our lives, and resumed our daily routine of watching the sun rise and fall at the horizon.

Yes, this story is gross, but the funny thing is that I don’t really remember how awful and disgusting it was. I mostly remember the blue dress and how much we laughed in the midst of the shittiest night of our lives.

I think the lesson we can learn here was best said by a man named Frank Lane:

 “If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm.” 

And if you’re wondering, even though there were shitty nights like this one, living on this special ship was definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my 20 years of travel so far.

(Photo: a very young me and my ship home circa 2000)

Pack Light but Carry Your Sense of Humor

If you’ve ever moved overseas you know that one thing more stressful than transoceanic economy class flying is transoceanic economy class relocating.

This is equivalent to taking your entire life and physically packing it into a nutshell- or more technically 20kg suitcases. This is not fun. This can be exceptionally stressful if you’re a travel masochist and have routed your trip home on 11 flights via 4 continents and included a mountain climb.

I love flying, but I hate flying with baggage. So I was proud to be traveling light as I started my very long strange trip home.

My first stop enroute was Kilimanjaro which required a flight via Bangkok, a Middle East transit, and a quick stop in Dar Es Salam before finally reaching the mountain I couldn’t see. (That’s PNH-BKK-DOH-DAR-JRO for fellow airplane nerds)

While packing up my life for this journey I had followed one wise piece of advice – carry or wear your essentials for the climb because many bags disappear.  And so I set out, traveling light, and wearing hiking boots and the world fattest winter coat in 90+ degree Cambodia.

One leg into my monster itinerary I was stopped at my gate in Bangkok by a smiling, yet incredibly determined Thai agent who flat out refused to let me board the flight with my carry-on.

I argued, and pleaded. I tried all my usual tricks. I attempted to show her that my bag was the right size and full of things I couldn’t check- like cameras, lenses, and computers, but there was no budging. I opened my bag and began putting on my extra fleeces and jackets.

The agreement, which I eventually had to comply with in order to board the flight, was to check my bag. But I refused to check my stuff.  (I was certain all my warm clothing were going to disappear).

I was kindly provided with an airport trash bag, dumped my entire suitcase inside, and checked an empty bag. I boarded the plane like Santa Claus- dressed in three layers of jackets and hauling a giant trash bag over my shoulder.

I stuffed my bag into the overhead bin, noting that it was now larger and just as heavy as it was when the contents were compressed neatly inside the suitcase. The other passengers smiled at me curiously and I smiled back. On any other day this charade probably would have made me cry, but something was different today.

I had packed light, but I hadn’t forgotten to pack my sense of humor.

Yes, travel is full of amazing experiences, but some days one small illogical thing is enough to push you over the top.  While sometimes it is easier to cry than it is to smile, I’ve learned that laughter is much better medicine than tears.

Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on. – Bob Newhart

 

** Photo- Finally landing in Kilimanjaro with my “luggage” by Andrea

 

To the Summit and Beyond

We laid in the tent half sleeping, half scared to death. Outside it was thundering and inside my heart was beating nearly as loudly. It was summit night.

Our instructions were to eat dinner and try to get some rest- though at 4,600 meters we were promised little more than short fits of shallow slumber.  At 11pm they would wake us, we were to dress warmly, but not wear more than 6 layers on top and 5 layers on bottom. At midnight it was time to go. 

This was it. The moment we’d been waiting for and walking towards. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it was now or never.

The ascent to the peak was magical. There were several inches of fresh snow on the ground from the evening storm, and we were truly walking in a winter wonderland. 

For nearly 6 hours we moved quietly by glow of our headlamps. The path pointed straight up towards the stars, and at our altitude the constellations seemed just a few meters beyond our grasp. It was still, cold and silent like a Christmas Eve should be.

Time passed faster than we anticipated and before we knew it the horizon had turned a deep red. After such a dark night the sunrise was magical and gave the snow a golden glow as we walked the last 45 minutes to the highest point of Uhuru Peak. 

We really made it. I laughed and cried with joy. The last week on the mountain and in the valleys had all been for this very moment. 

And then we turned around.

We had reached our goal. It was done. But only, it wasn’t. We were now nearly 6,000 meters in the sky and there wasn’t a helicopter coming to pick us up. We had to rely our incredibly tired legs to carry us all the way down the mountain.

For six days I’d been so worried about the journey up the mountain that I hadn’t taken much time to think about what happened after we reached the top. “Once we get up, the coming down will take care of itself,” I told myself.

As I drug myself 8 hours down the face of Kilimanjaro that day and another 4 hours the next,  I had an ephiphany, or mountainside moment of sorts. Living for the summit wasn’t just something I was doing on Kili- it was the way I often lived my life.

I like dreaming big and getting to the peaks. I don’t like the monotonous work that comes after the fireworks go out.

So often we’re so focused on getting to a goal that we completely forget that the work goes on beyond the peak, the launch, or the big break.  And the stuff that comes after the great success is often harder because it isn’t exciting or driven by the motivation of uncertainty and potential achievement.  There is no wonder or mystery. No fear of failure driving you towards your success.

I’m not sure this is what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he said,  “The end is where we start from.”  But this is how it felt.

Just because you’ve achieved your dream the work doesn’t automatically finish itself. The hard part is probably just beginning.

In the case of Kilimanjao, we authored a new goal to keep us motivated as we stumbled our way to the bottom – a hot shower and a bottle of wine for Christmas.

Reaching the bottom was the most amazing Christmas gift ever, but in all the excitement, we didn’t forget to write down the lesson:

It doesn’t end at the summit. That is just the start of the journey onward.

 

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Thanks for sticking with me through so many Kilimanjaro stories. Next week, we’ll move onward from Africa with some more tales of travel, giving and living. If you like all the stories be sure to sign up here for our special updates for amazing people. (Don’t worry, it’s free and we don’t believe in junk email)

 

 

Valley Views

All my small stories this week have been about my quest to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, but today’s lesson comes from a much less exciting and more mysterious place: the valley.

Perhaps it is my churchy upbringing, but I’ve always associated valleys with down, difficult times and the foreboding shadow of death. Since I’m the kind of lady who dreams happy thoughts, I typically do anything I can to avoid valleys.

But on Kilimanjaro, valleys are important. The route we took up the mountain actually required us to walk through as many valleys as humanly possible.

Why would anyone choose the slowest, valley-filled way up a mountain if the goal is merely to reach the top, you ask.

Ancient mountaineering wisdom advises high altitude seekers to “climb high and sleep low”. If your climb is a lot of valleys and peaks rather than a straight ascent to the top, your body better acclimates to the altitude. 

In modern day non-mountaineering language this means: If you walk up and down a lot you have a better chance to reach the summit.

The problem with walking up and down, however, is that when you goal is going up, going down isn’t fun (and it hurts your knees and toes). Hitting a valley is frustrating. It takes you directly opposite of where you want to be.

Unfortunately once you’re on the mountain there aren’t any shortcuts. On our fourth day of walking up and down, we had our longest and coldest day of the climb. We walked up, up, up nearly 1,000 meters through 5 hours of wind, hail and rain. Once we reached the famous Lava Tower at 4,630 meters we started a two hour descent into the valley.

Walking up the mountain that day was like walking on the moon- cold, barren and downright difficult. But the valley was suprising. It was lush, warm, and filled with desert flowers and the most amazing trees that look like they were painted straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

I loved the view in the valley, but I resented that it was undoing a full day of uphill walking for such little cumulative altitude gain.

That night as we ate popcorn and talked about our lessons from the day, it occurred to me that this valley was teaching me something different. The lesson wasn’t the obvious one- that it takes a lot of ups and downs to reach the top.

You see, though our valley was down, our valley view was not low and desolate. It was high in the sky. Our tent was resting above the clouds where only the stars and airplanes hang out.

My lesson this day was that valleys exist in high places.

Valleys don’t only occur at rock bottom. They don’t have to be about a bad time or require starting over from the very beginning again.

Though the valley had felt like it had moved us backward, we were still 3,900 meters closer to our goal than when we started.

I’d never considered the fact that valleys could be high and hopeful. That they could lie above the cloud line and serve a practical purpose. My valley wasn’t making me start over, this valley was just asking me to pause and rest between the peaks.

Next time I’m in a valley I’m going to take a breath and check out the view.

_______________________________

“One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” – G.K. Chesterton

The Invisible Journey

As our flight drew near to Kilimanjaro’s JRO airport for landing, I was glued to the window of 27A, camera in hand, waiting to get the first sight and first shot of the mountain we’d traveled so far to see. I imagined my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro would be like Ernest Hemingway penned:

“There, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.”

But it wasn’t. There was no mountain to be seen at all. I was confused and disappointed. How could a mountain big enough to take eight days to climb up not be visible from the sky.

If I couldn’t see it from the sky, I assumed it must be under the clouds. This secretly made me happy that maybe the mountain would look smaller than I imagined and I wouldn’t feel so scared about climbing it when I saw it.

Outside out of the airport we still couldn’t see it. And in the town of Moshi nestled at Kilimanjaro’s base, we still couldn’t sit it. We went to bed and woke up, still no mountain.

We spent two days in town acclimatizing to the time and altitude, renting the gear we needed for climbing, and waiting for the clouds to disappear so we could get our first glimpse. But the closest thing was a directional sign in the town circle pointing which direction the invisible mountain was supposed to be.

We followed the sign and set out, trusting our guide as we started up the invisible mountain.

I took small comfort in the Sunday school story I learned as a kid about God using a giant cloud to lead the people through the desert. (I also tried not to reflect on the fact that these were the same people who were lost for 40 years.)

Settled into camp on the Shira Ridge on the night of our second day it finally happened. The clouds broke. The sun shone. Kilimanjaro showed her beautiful (and very tall) mountain face. I smiled. And then the mountain disappeared again.

The next six days would be similar. We would walk all day in the clouds, not sure which direction – besides up- that the peak was. At night, the clouds would break, the mountain and the incredible stars would watch over us as we attempted to sleep, and as soon as the sun rose, she would hide her face again until the next night.

At first it was frustrating to be climbing a mountain that I never actually got to see. But then I realized that this little journey was very similar to life.

The big goals and dreams are always there, but you don’t have to have them in perfect focus in order to make progress toward reaching them one day and one step at a time.

When we finished the mountain, Kilimanjaro remained hidden. I was worried that we’d never see her again or get to see her whole. On our last night in town, she teased us for a moment, showing her peak above the cloud line. I was estatic.

And then in a beautiful farewell, as I drove out to the airport to leave Tanzania behind, she showed herself in all her glory as a parting gift of sorts.

I didn’t get to see where I was going, but I finally got to see where I had been.